A New York state appeals court rejected a bid to throw out scores of absentee ballots in a local election in a Catskills resort village — tightening a Brooklyn-based rabbi’s controversial grip over the town.
The hamlet of Fleischmanns has been at the center of voter fraud allegations and has attracted federal scrutiny over a voter registration drive orchestrated by a Rabbi Abraham Horowitz, who asked his Williamsburg congregation to cast absentee ballots for his hand-picked candidates for mayor and trustees in the March 21 election.
The congregants spend the summer in Fleischmanns, staying mostly in homes owned by Kahal Bais Yitzchok synagogue in Williamsburg.
The New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division ruled on Monday that 81 absentee ballots that had been set aside since March should be opened, rebuffing a group of Fleischmanns residents who have been fighting over absentee votes for two years.
“The court punted the case on procedural grounds and hair-splitting election law,” said Todd Pascarella, a candidate for village trustee who lost his bid on Wednesday when the ballots were canvassed. “The rug has been pulled out from under us again.”
The court’s decision tilted the election to the rabbi’s candidates, who handily won after the absentee ballots were opened.
Locals worry that the rabbi will push his elected board members to eventually impose strict religious rules on the entire town, including segregating swim times for men and women in the community pool.
They also fear the board will rubber stamp property deals on behalf of the congregation, awarding them tax-exempt status.
Real estate mogul Wigdor Mendlovic, who also aided the voter registration drive, owns nearly 20 properties in Fleischmanns while the synagogue owns about five homes, referred to as the ‘Horowitz compound,’ according to court documents.
“If Rabbi Horowitz is able to increase his presence here by acquiring more properties that are all tax-exempt, then fewer people will be paying taxes and carrying the weight,” of the village’s expenses, Pascarella added.
Fleischmanns’ population of 210 dramatically increases during the summer when the city residents stay there.
“This was a big win for the voters who were challenged,” said John Joseph Ciampoli, and election attorney who represents defendant and trustee, Stuart Cohen.
The Appellate court did not address the residency challenges in the locals’ complaint, ruling instead that their case should have focused on the voter registrations of the people who submitted absentee ballots.
Fleischmanns residents’ did challenge the voter registrations with the Delaware County Board of Elections — the entity that is charged with vetting registrations — and a sheriff’s investigation was launched in March. Some registrations listed Fleischmanns hotels and motels as residences.
But the results of the investigation were not known at the time of a seven-day trial before a New York Supreme Court judge in April, who ordered that most of the ballots be opened, or at the time of the hearing before the Appellate court on June 5.
Last year, some 63 people were purged from the Fleischmanns voter rolls after the sheriff found that they didn’t live in Fleischmanns and had no right to participate in the local elections there — but the findings came too late to change the election results.
The locals say history is repeating itself.
The Delaware County Board of Elections’ Democratic commissioner, Judith Garrison, told The Post the Sheriff just completed his investigation and found that “some of the registrations were valid, some were not and some were indeterminate.”
But even if someone is purged from the voter rolls one year the same person can register to vote in the same municipality by providing a different address.
“We don’t challenge the new address unless an outside voter challenges it,” Garrison said. “If the same person who is purged registers at a new address that person is risking going to jail if they are lying about their address.”
In this case, the challenge took nearly four months to investigate – and therein lies the conundrum for the Fleischmanns residents.
Election law allows voters to register within 10 days of an election.
“Our laws and institutions have failed us at every level,” said the locals’ attorney Daniel Belzil. “We are not going to give up the fight. We are disappointed and we know our position is correct.”
Election law experts say the dispute could go to the state’s highest court.
Columbia University law professor, Richard Briffault, said “This could be a landmark case.”